Say goodbye to white tie

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DAVID MERMELSTEIN is a freelance critic and arts reporter in Los Angeles.

NOTHING MUCH endures in L.A. It’s one of our claims to fame. Perino’s, the Ambassador Hotel, the Broadway movie palaces, even St. Vibiana’s Cathedral -- all gone or repurposed. Houses fall off cliffs here; new neighborhoods gobble up open space. Angelenos take to change.

So what a very curious thing that something as fragile as a formal dress code has survived the decades’ vicissitudes. I’m speaking of the clothes -- uniforms, really -- worn by the musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. For their regular evening concerts (two to four a week through the 2005-06 season, which opens tonight), it will be white tie and tails for the men and drab black gowns or pantsuits for the women.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 6, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 06, 2005 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
White tie: A Sept. 29 commentary about the dress code for the Los Angeles Philharmonic said there would be two to four regular evening concerts a week during the 2005-06 season; there are two to three.

As long as the Philharmonic played at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- whose very name sounds starched -- this sartorial choice made sense. The high ceilings of the Chandler’s public rooms, its enormous crystal chandeliers, all those gold mosaic tiles, added up to a space somewhere between palace and temple. A few people showed up at nighttime concerts in jeans and flip-flops, but a lot more managed to feel underdressed wearing their very best.


The musicians helped set the Chandler tone. During the tenures of music directors Zubin Mehta, Carlo Maria Giulini and Andre Previn -- that is, from the opening of the Chandler in 1964 until shortly after Esa-Pekka Salonen’s arrival in 1992 -- the women wore black gowns, the men black ties and tuxedos, a mode of dress only incrementally less formal than the full Fred Astaire getup Salonen instituted.

For the audience, at least, the Philharmonic’s move to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 has changed things. As a music critic, I attend most Philharmonic programs each season and, except for “gala” nights like the season opener, I see more and more patrons trading in ties and fancy frocks for neat but casual attire.

At the Chandler, T-shirt wearers earned cold stares; at Disney Hall, the out-of-place patron is the one wearing a three-piece suit or satin wrap.

Why the change? For starters, standards of public deportment and dress are relaxing. (If there’s a teenager out there whose Levi’s aren’t slipping off her posterior, please raise your hand.) But mostly it’s the venue. Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry promised us a “living room for the city,” and all that undulating stainless steel (outside) and Douglas fir and brightly patterned upholstery (inside) seem to be the quintessence of the relaxed fit.

So it’s past time for the orchestra to make a change, to take a cue from the audience. There is, after all, something fundamentally strange about an organization that emphasizes modern and contemporary music playing in a 21st century hall in outfits straight out of the 19th century.

The Philharmonic insists that its dress code signals the musicians’ professionalism. But would audiences really think less of the players if they swapped their white tie and tails for the dark suits and neckties now worn only at matinees? Or, better yet, what about the comfortable all-black ensembles the orchestra’s New Music Group wears for Green Umbrella concerts?


A few years ago, the orchestra instituted a few Casual Friday concerts each season, in which patrons are encouraged to “come as you are,” and the only items musicians are forbidden from wearing are shorts, T-shirts and “bright white tennis shoes.” Already, some guest conductors, such as Christoph Eschenbach, and soloists -- pianist Lang Lang, percussionist Evelyn Glennie and violinist Leila Josefowicz spring to mind -- have moved far beyond stiff white collars and anything approaching prom-dress formality.

Los Angeles has never been high on sentimentality or tradition. And with classical music enterprises everywhere hoping to ditch their reputations as elitist redoubts, it’s a wonder the Philharmonic isn’t dressing down all the time. Disney Hall is the place to bring the orchestra in line with the city’s prevailing zeitgeist. All in favor of low-rise jeans and surfer shorts?